The first time that I visited Oatlands Plantation I was struck by how beautiful and peaceful it was, even with so many people milling about the grounds.
I can easily imagine having lived here in the 1800’s strolling through the stately rooms and picturesque gardens. Oatlands has history in spades, that much is certain, and the plantation seems as at home here in Northern Virginia as it might have been in England.
Oatlands was formed in 1798 from 3,408 acres of prime Loudoun County, Va, farmland by a young bachelor named George Carter, descendant of one of Virginia’s first families. Basing his plantation economy on wheat production, Carter eventually branched out to grow other small grains; raise sheep for their wool; develop a vineyard; and build a mill complex on nearby Goose Creek for the grinding of grain, milling of timber, and pressing of flax seed to produce oil cake. In 1801 he began calling his plantation “Oatlands.”
In 1804 Carter began building a classic Federal-style mansion near the southern boundary of his property. As his farm took hold and his financial position strengthened, he added a terraced garden and numerous outbuildings to the property, including a propagation greenhouse, a smokehouse, and a three-story bank barn. During the 1820s and 1830s Carter added to and embellished his mansion.
Carter’s growing wealth was based on the labor of enslaved African Americans. When he took over the property, George Carter owned 17 slaves; in the 1840s the number had grown to 85. Just prior to the Civil War Oatlands housed the largest slave population in Loudoun County, numbering 128 people. Unfortunately, little documentary evidence remains about the personal lives of these workers or the slave culture at Oatlands.
When George Carter died, his widow, Elizabeth Grayson Carter, remained at Oatlands with their two sons and managed the property through the Civil War years.
The Carter family’s fortunes declined following the Civil War. Beset with debt and unable to recover from the loss of their slave labor, George Carter Jr. and his wife, Katherine Powell Carter, operated Oatlands first as a girls’ school and later as a summer boarding house. In 1897 the Carters sold the mansion with 60 acres to Stilson Hutchins, founder of the Washington Post newspaper. Hutchins never lived on the property, selling it in 1903 to affluent Washingtonians William and Edith Eustis.
Today Oatlands is a self-supporting co-stewardship National Trust Historic Site. The mission of Oatlands is to preserve the property for future generations, interpret the house and grounds to the public, and serve as an educational resource. The grounds also are available for special events and private functions.
The construction of the mansion at Oatlands is in and of itself, quite fascinating – especially for someone who studied architecture like myself. The house began construction in or around 1804. Over the next 20 or so years construction continued on the house; beginning, halting, changing, and evolving into the house that we see today. The original design was for a Federal style mansion made of brick. Sometime around the 1820’s when the Greek Revival style was popular George Carter decided to stucco over the brick facade and add the octogonal staircases on either end. It was not until the 20th century that the distinctive porch was added to the front of the house. Oatlands has a lot to offer couples and photographers on a wedding day. Though events are not held inside the historic home, the property has plenty of space for a tented reception on the front lawn (which most couples opt for) and several choices for ceremony sites in the formal gardens.
The gardens boast a tea house, a small pond and fountain, boxwood hedge lined paths, and many romantic nooks. The greenhouse is onr of my favorite places to photograph, especially in Fall and Winter when the plants ahve been moved to the greenhouse to keep them away from the cold. The greenhouse has interesting distressed walls, an upper area that is great for getting ready images, and is nice and cozy warm. The carriage house at the front of the property houses the gift shop and also has a meeting room for smaller events.